(This is the 36th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors.)
There are all sorts of markers that, I suspect, convince people to avoid a particular movie. If “everyone” says the movie is a classic, you might tire of their enthusiasm. Maybe it’s a silent movie and you don’t think you like those, or it’s in black & white and you think you don’t like those. Maybe it has a religious theme, and you aren’t ready to be converted. And maybe you read comments like those that appear in this group, where week after week we recommend this or that movie, and at some point you realize there is no way you’re going to keep up with our suggestions, and no way to ensure you’ll actually like the ones you watch. And so, when I tell you that The Passion of Joan of Arc is a justifiably great classic film, that when I say it’s great I don’t mean great like The Social Network but I mean great like Hamlet or The Great Gatsby or Born to Run, when I note that, as Pauline Kael wrote, this is “one of the greatest of all movies” … this time, it isn’t hyperbole. Falconetti, who plays Joan of Arc, never appeared in another movie, but she went out with a bang … her performance here is unparalleled. In addition to all of the above, you have likely never seen a film that looks quite like this one.
Jean Cocteau said The Passion of Joan of Arc was “an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn’t exist.” This perfectly explains the odd feeling we get watching the film, which is like a cinéma vérité documentary, except we know it can’t be. What is equally odd is that the film feels so “real” yet there is nothing realistic about it stylistically. As Dreyer said, “What counted was getting the spectator absorbed in the past; the means were multifarious and new.” The actors wore no make-up, and the film was shot in sequence, all of which added to the documentary feel. But Dreyer’s use of close-ups draws our attention; we are constantly aware of the manipulation of the camera.
Meanwhile, there is Falconetti. I’m suspicious when someone says “it’s great, but I can’t put the reason into words.” I usually assume the person is merely trying to disguise the way their subjective response affects their judgment. (I’m all in favor of subjective responses, I just don’t think they should be disguised.) I am also suspicious when someone uses a version of the “end of story” trick, wherein discussion is closed without any real explanation for what has been said (end of story). Yet, the truth is, I can’t describe Falconetti; she has to be seen. And even Kael, who was never at a loss for words, is left with nothing except to state that “Falconetti’s Joan may be the finest performance ever recorded on film.”